Killer D Update: The FAA and Exterminatin' DeLay

The FAA issues a shame-faced report about its hunt for the Killer D's.

Killer D Update: The FAA and Exterminatin' DeLay
Illustration By Doug Potter

"The use of Federal Aviation Administration employees to track down absentee Democrats in May crossed the line. ...

"In the big picture, this misuse of federal resources is a minor if unsavory transgression.

"But regardless of where one stands on redrawing congressional district lines in Texas, it is offensive for a member of Congress to manipulate a federal agency to track down political foes in a strictly political situation."

That was all the high dudgeon the editors of the San Antonio Express-News could muster in response to the July 11 report by the inspector general of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation that U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, had improperly gotten the FAA involved in trying to track down the missing Texas House Democrats last May. The other major Texas dailies couldn't manage even that much umbrage. Ohio's Columbus Dispatch cut a bit closer to the bone: "Even without the details of the inspector general's report," dispatched the Dispatch, "the congressman clearly used resources funded by taxpayers to play politics in his home state. The details of the report show the misuse was egregious."

The New York Times weighed in ("Tom DeLay's Down-Home Muscle," July 17), describing DeLay's "10-gallon thirst for power" (actually, as Statesman cartoonist Ben Sargent is fond of suggesting, the Bug Man's taste runs more toward brown shirts) and then joked, "Mr. DeLay's office succeeded in tracing the Democrats, suggesting that he might better serve Republicans in the search for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein rather than opposition truants." In fact the Times is wrong -- despite much fulmination and arm-twisting by subordinates (a servile crew that included both the Texas governor and the speaker of the House), by the time DeLay's minions and whatever federal agencies they could inveigle had "traced" Rep. Pete Laney's plane to and from Ardmore, Okla., reporter Pete Slover of the Dallas Morning News had already found them (all on his lonesome), and the news was readily available on the Web and then the 10pm news.

Just as DeLay's not much of a public official, he's not much of a detective, either -- can't be bothered to do his own legwork.

There is much more interest in the report of FAA Inspector General Kenneth Mead, produced in response to a request by Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Although the agency was a little shamefaced about it, at least (unlike the Dept. of Homeland Security) it did a real investigation and made no attempt to redact into anonymity the names of the staff members involved. And in response to what the inspector general found, the FAA has revised its rules concerning such searches for missing aircraft -- for example, if somebody calls an air-traffic controller and says he's a policeman, the controller should confirm he's a cop and find out his name before devoting agency time to a wild-politician chase and happily providing the requested info.

There's also some serious ass-covering going on, although the bureaucratic language of the report strains mightily to disguise it. The central figure in the FAA report is one David Balloff, the FAA's assistant administrator for government and industry affairs. Balloff took the original call from DeLay's office on Monday afternoon, May 12 (the Dems had been in Ardmore since the night before), asked various FAA personnel to find out what they could about Laney's plane (including where it had been in the previous 24 hours) and then claimed afterward that he didn't know the purpose of the request but presumed without asking that it was "a safety issue." According to Balloff, he first learned of the absent legislators in the May 13 Washington Post and later (much later) told investigators (says the report), "I figured out why they were calling. ... I just felt like I had been used. ... I don't do anything for political purposes. ... I would never use my office to help somebody out politically, for any political reasons, period." (Although Balloff was immediately aware that the agency was reviewing the circumstances of the search, he made a point of not telling his superiors about his involvement until he was asked a direct question he couldn't evade.)

Inspector General Mead is rather politely circumspect about Balloff's versions of events, but anyone reading the report is extremely likely to conclude that Balloff's virginal protestations are -- well, pure-dee Texas bullshit. Not only was the Democrats' flight a statewide and nationwide story by Monday afternoon when Balloff began making his calls, not only did even some of the air-traffic controllers themselves recognize immediately what was up ("You must be looking for the missing Democrats," one told the DPS), according to his official FAA bio, Balloff is a former longtime Republican congressional staffer and "a three-time elected member to the Tennessee State Republican Executive Committee."

But the morning after his little "constituent service" (as U.S. Sen. Don Young, R-Alaska, described it) for Tom DeLay, Balloff "felt like [he] had been used." No doubt so did the girls at the Chicken Ranch.

The FAA has tightened its rules and record-keeping concerning agency response to information requests and said administrators would "counsel [Balloff] concerning issues in regard to his judgment in this matter." Let's see -- attempting to mislead federal safety officials, misusing federal resources, then lying about it to superiors. Yup, counseling ought to take care of it.

While they're at it, maybe the counselors can suggest a cure for a bad case of Tom DeLay.

The full report of the inspector general of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation is available online at www.oig.dot.gov/item_details.php?item=1125.

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